By Dr. Joseph Chuman
This spring marks the 50th year of my affiliation with Ethical Culture. I joined the New York Society in the spring of 1968, when I was 20 and in my final semester of college. Shortly after joining, I was invited to enter the leadership-training program. I started in New York and then came to the Bergen Society in the fall of 1970. I worked with the leader then, Paul Weston, for two years and in September, 1972, I moved to Maplewood to finish the last two years of training with the Essex Society as its de facto leader.
In 1974, Paul retired from leadership and he and his wife moved to Maine. The position opened up, I applied, and the rest, as they say, is history. So this season marks the completion of my 44th year of professional leadership at the Bergen Society, but as noted, my affiliation with our community extends back four years earlier, with the gap of two years that I spent at the Essex Society.
During this almost half-century, I have known many wonderful people. Some are still here from the time I arrived, but very many more exist only as memories and through the contributions they made to our community and the legacies they have left. It is a point of some sadness to me that many of our more recent members do not know the very many marvelous members who preceded them and the contributions they had made to the Society.
There are simply too many people who have passed through our doors for me to individually recall them now. Perhaps I will at some later time. But what I would like to do is to compare the Society as it was in my earliest years here and how it has evolved since. Let me divide the review into several parts.
Our building is larger now than it was in 1972. In 1979 we expanded the meetinghouse by extending the east wall by 8 feet into the yard. This involved moving the front door, which was a wooden double door with small glass panels facing into the yard, to the current, more modern, entrance, which faces North Street. Building codes required that we put in our larger bathrooms and the entrance ramp. We gutted the stairway and removed the small first-floor office, which was to the right of the stairs, with a small mimeograph (remember those?) office under the staircase. The current new staircase was within the eight-foot addition as is the office at the top of the stairs. Most important, the main room was made larger and squared off, more or less. We added a carpet and small dance floor (which was seldom used). This was a vast improvement over the original room, which was long and narrow, and covered with white and green linoleum tiles (which were quite ugly). More details could be provided, but a loss was having to exchange the roof covered with distinctive ceramic Spanish tiles for the current strictly functional one. But then as now, the building was maintained by skilled and very devoted volunteer members.
The Society was founded in 1953 and quickly grew – at one time having a reported 256 members. Quite a few Societies were formed in this era as people moved from the cities to populate the suburbs. We acquired our meetinghouse in 1956, I believe. At first, with more than 200 students, it housed our Sunday School exclusively, while our adult members rented the Teaneck Town House for its meetings.
The Sunday School and the Society were much more formal affairs back then. When I first came on board, I was probably the only male in the room who did not wear a tie. Today, when I speak on Sundays, I am the only one who does.
Although I editorialize, I think we were an “edgier” group back then. The atmosphere was more patriarchal, our board meetings sometimes dragged until after midnight, and the discourse was more argumentative. All told, I think we have become a kinder group, with people more consciously aware of the sensitivities of others. Also, back then, the ideology veered toward a more blatantly atheistic, anti-religious sensibility. Today, I think the atmosphere reflects a more encompassing and positive humanism. In my view, this is a good thing.
Sociologically, we have always been predominantly a professional, middle-class community that has always struggled to attract people of color, though we do have a much larger percentage of members who reflect other minorities. We were concerned with civil rights back then. In fact, we founded a multi-racial summer camp in the 60’s that lasted almost 10 years, but we were not as conscious then as now about how the issue pertains to us directly.
Our activist orientation has not changed much. We still found new institutions, including the Fair Housing Council (still going) and the Teaneck Peace Center (ended with the Vietnam War) in an earlier time, and the Sanctuary Coalition and the Bergen County Brady Chapter in more recent days. And throughout, we have been very engaged with current issues, both local, national and international, always on the progressive end of the spectrum.
I close this review with my observation that we are much better organized today. We are blessed with a large coterie of smart people who are amazingly dedicated to the ideals of Ethical Culture, the community and the people in it. Members do like each other and treat one another with respect and kindness, and when necessary, with mutual support. This is not a small thing. In fact, it matters more than anything else. Humanism is as humanism does, and we do it very, very well.
This has been a very good year for us, as many have been. May next year be even better! I wish you all a very pleasant and restorative summer.
Dr. Joseph Chuman is leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.